Diving with Whale Sharks in the Georgia Aquarium

The shark bumped me before I’d even put on my fins.

“Hello there!” I gurgled into my regulator, then fitted the rest of my gear and dropped below the surface and down to the sandy bottom of the massive blue tank.

Georgia Aquarium’s Ocean Voyager exhibit is unfathomably large—the size of a football field, ranging from 20 to 30 feet deep and filled with 6.3 million gallons of saltwater. What’s more, it’s home to four amazing whale sharks, the world’s largest fish who move through the water like zeppelins on a mission.

A whale shark swims past in Georgia Aquarium's Ocean Voyager exhibit, a 6.3 million gallon tank filled with ocean life (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)
A whale shark swims past in Georgia Aquarium’s Ocean Voyager exhibit, a 6.3 million gallon tank filled with ocean life (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

We were the small fish in a big pond, and whenever any creature hovered in over us, we dropped down onto the floor and gaze upwards. Gazing up at the highway of fish moving overhead, I felt like an air traffic controller at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. One second, a manta ray with his fully extended 16-foot wingspan came soaring past, showing off his soft white underbelly, the next, a whale shark loomed in from the other direction, eclipsing the shimmering indoor lights and turning my world into a deep ocean dark blue. But those were just the big guys—there were also countless trevally, strange guitarfish, zebrafish, jacks and the rare wobbegong. My favorite of all were the gargantuan groupers (as big as me!) that pouted in the corner while I engaged them in a staring contest.

All the while, crowds of people lined up on the opposite side of the 2-foot thick plexiglass wall, waving at us divers. I waved back, then showed off with a back flip before scurrying back to the wonderful fish that swarmed about.

No matter that this city is “landlocked”, Atlanta’s ocean is one of the most exciting I’ve ever explored. Kicking gently through the blue, I felt like I was back in the Maldives or Palau, where the ocean is endless and the fish rule.

Diving in Georgia Aquarium's Ocean Voyager Exhibit (Courtesy Georgia Aquarium)
Diving in Georgia Aquarium’s Ocean Voyager Exhibit (Courtesy Georgia Aquarium)

Every time a whale shark approached, I wanted to shout “INCOMING!” to the others, but all I could muster was a stream of silvery bubbles. To be this close to the world’s largest (and most interesting) fish was incredible. Up close, whale sharks look airbrushed, as if they had been tagged by graffiti artists with white spray paint. But no—this is their natural pattern, and it is so beautiful.

I have been fortunate to go diving all over the world, but diving at the Georgia Aquarium had my head spinning with glee—I stayed underwater almost 50 minutes, and when it came time to surface, I fixed my eyes on the passing sharks and said goodbye to the gentle giants.

Any certified diver can sign up for a dive at the Georgia Aquarium and non-divers can join any of the special interactive swims and snorkels to get up close and personal with some of the coolest wildlife on Earth. It’s the best way to get wet in Atlanta, and the best way to feel really, really small.

Georgia Aquarium's Ocean Voyager exhibit (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)
Georgia Aquarium’s Ocean Voyager exhibit (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Travel)


  1. Saving the South – Digital Nomad
    June 11, 2014, 7:09 am

    […] from beds of white pitcher plants that are kept as part of local conservation efforts. Like the aquarium and the zoo, the Atlanta Botanical Garden are phenomenal to visit, but also actively involved in […]

  2. Johanna
    June 13, 2014, 4:34 pm

    I’m pretty gutted you’ve shared this article Nat Geo. I’m a huge fan of your articles and your images are second to none. I feel a little conned as I had no idea that keeping animals in captivity for human pleasure was okay by you. I’d be really interested to know why you think keeping these wild animals in an aquarium is okay? Is this a change in policy or something you’ve always been happy about?

    • Andrew Evans
      June 13, 2014, 7:18 pm

      Dear Joanna,

      Thank you for reading and your comment. First of all, please know that this is a travel blog and does not reflect any of the Society’s formal positions one way or another. Secondly, the Georgia Aquarium is actively involved in ocean conservation, and this exhibit is part of their efforts. Though I agree with you that wild animals are better kept in the wild, it is naive for anyone to think that in our Earth today, wildlife can survive unmolested if we just leave them be. The four whales sharks in the Georgia Aquarium were fished in Taiwan–they would have been eaten had they not been purchased and transported to Atlanta. The sad fact is that in our world today, there is very little “Wild” space left, and if we are not actively involved in the conservation of very specific species (which includes keeping some of them captive), then we risk losing that species forever. I have written about this very subject extensively on my blog, most recently about elephants and rhinos. I truly wish we could just leave animals to fend for themselves, but the fact is that we are now involved in a war, and I would rather have these four animals living in a very healthy and comfortable exhibit in North American than have them lost forever. Thanks again for reading.

  3. […] fulfilled many times over. In my whole life I never imagined that I would get paid to build bombs, cuddle sharks, track bears, kiss pandas, be buried alive, make Swiss cheese, or chase elephants from my yard. But […]

  4. Eric Cheng
    San Francisco, CA
    August 22, 2014, 12:45 pm

    Andrew, I’m having a hard time reading about your dive with a whale shark in the Georgia Aquarium and your post about why you won’t go cage diving with sharks (http://digitalnomad.nationalgeographic.com/2013/11/21/why-i-wont-go-shark-cage-diving/). Perhaps it would be worth re-visiting baited and/or caged shark diving and posting a retraction, should your opinion change.

  5. tracy jones
    June 4, 2015, 12:09 pm

    I got to snorkel with one in the sea of Cortez. it was SO cool to swim with such a majestic creature in the wild.

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